Guardian Book Club: Nordic Noir Author Jo Nesbo discusses his novel Redbreast

JN_c_Niklas-R_-Lello- credit. Jo Nesbo
JN_c_Niklas-R_-Lello- credit. Jo Nesbo
Jo Nesbo is a man with many benisons, a former footballer who played for Norway`s premier football team who by his own admission says that when people recall his footballing days, his ability gets exaggerated every time. Just when you start to whoop with surpise and are overcome with forgivable envy, you find out he is a demi-god in a rock band.The plaudits just keep rolling like a tickertape parade and a veritable list of desirable capstones.

The Redbreast- Jo Nesbo
The Redbreast- Jo Nesbo

GloBooks was fortuitous enough to attend the recent Guardian interview with Jo Nesbo, Norway`s literary firebrand and something of a literary pop celebre, who has sold over 23 million books worldwide and rising as you read. The author behind the successful Harry Hole series with book titles; The Bat, Snowman and the Leopard and more recently his stand alone novel The Son has received rave reviews. He has been called the king of Nordic Noir and whilst this might be up for debate, he certainly ranks as a serious contender. Yet Nesbo is a self effacing man with a quiet reserve, an astute observer of humans and human emotions and an undeniable gift for story telling, an essential must-have for any great crime fiction writer. His self deprecating manner would probably have him guffawing at the very idea. Nesbo is quietly confident and rather then being precocious, was generous in allowing the audience access all areas to the corners of his mind.

RedBreast is Nesbo`s third novel in the series. Asked just what makes a successful crime fiction novel?, he replied “As a writer you try to manipulate the reader. You will feel really happy and make them invest emotionally in the characters. Just what are the rules to be followed? According to Nesbo, timing is everything. “I don’t think of it as rules. I once asked a comedian just what is timing? Timing is delivering the punch line before the audience know the punch-line is coming and its the same with the crime novel and if you can get the audience to think they have got there half way to the conclusion then that’s the only rule I follow and it wont work with all the readers all the time.”

So how and when do you decide to do the big reveal? Just like the twist, the guts of any decent crime fiction novel, knowing when to reveal the twist is as important as the run-up itself. It can be an egregious feature of writers of a lesser pedigree. “You have to give the information some function in the story. The readers are getting so smart and well trained [but you can still] mislead the reader.”

In the novel Redbreast, the reader goes back to a certain time in order to contextualise the novel and understand the protagonist, nothing new. He was asked why did he go back to that period of history? “I was prepared that it would be controversial. During the Second World War the native people had decided to cooperate in fighting with the Germans… Many of these were young men, my father was one of them and he was just 19. Norway was occupied in 1940. He was arrested by the Germans and put in jail. He later decided that old democracies looked weak and Britain and France were on the brink of bankruptcy. He made a choice between Stalin and Hitler and he decided to fight with Hitler as he preferred Hitler to Stalin.That’s the kind of choices I was interested in before I wrote this book. I didn’t learn about my father until I was 15 years old and that was a shock. What could have made a man like my father make a decision like that to fight alongside Hitler….In the book I wanted to get a broad perspective of the men who fought with the Germans and also be able to tell a story. It wasn’t black or white. Norway was a young nation and it wanted to build its image after the Second World War as a small but courageous nation who fought the Germans which to some degree was true but [the fact is] as many people fought in the resistance, also fought with the Germans When the book was published, I was prepared for heated discussion because emotions are so strong about Norway`s role during the Second World War.”

Aside from the challenges of writing a great crime fiction novel, there is of course trying to skilfully manage the translation process as well. According to Nesbo, trust is very important. “Firstly I don’t work closely with the translator. I did with the first book [which was translated by Don Bartlett]…and I`m really happy with his translations and I realised when I read the first book that things are bound to get lost with translation and I realised Don Bartlett is doing a much better job of solving those problems, then I could have done, so I just have to trust him. Nesbo then recalls a time when he didn’t really recognise the end result….”When I came to England for the first time, people found them funny ..” He then looks up and mimicking a quizzical look for comical effect said “I thought has Don been putting in jokes without telling me….. maybe some of his translations are better then the original.”

The Snowman. The Redbreast now being turned into a film.
The Snowman. The Redbreast now being turned into a film.

Following the film version of his novel The Head Hunters in 2013, are there any plans for the film versions of his other books? a question posed by one eager follower within the audience. He revealed that he has just sold the film rights to The Snowman. The script will be written by Soren Sveistrup the creator of The Killing produced by none other then Martin Scorsese and directed by the man behind the film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson. He gives a reassuring glance to the audience and says with a whisper of a smile… “so its a good team.”

How has the global interest in Nordic literature happened? “I have been published for over 10 or 12 years so it hasn’t happened overnight. Crime writing has been a big thing over in Norway and Sweden stemming back to the 70`s. There are so many talented young writers that used crime writing as a vehicle for their story telling talents. So there were lots of good writers in the 80`s in Scandinavia. Most people think [Nordic noir was discovered] by Stieg Larsson but there was Henning Mankell who was the door-opener for Larsson…..[Infact] there are so many good writers around but I promise you there are so many more bad writers. Asked how he feels about being the next Stieg Larsson. “There’s nothing wrong about being compared to Stieg Larsson. It could have been worse I could have been the next Dan Brown.”, he said with a wry smile.

Two Jo Nesbo fans clutching their signed copies of Redbreast.
Two Jo Nesbo fans clutching their signed copies of Redbreast.

Just how do writers combat the age-old problem of being distracted?…. “I’m not very disciplined. I don’t have any routines.Its easy… I love writing. I see it as a privilege to spend time writing. I never decide to get up early and write from 8-4. If I do get up early, I will go to a coffee shop and write for 2 hours. It`s as simple as that. I don’t need discipline since I love to write.” Frankly if they awarded Michelin stars for fine writing as well as fine dining, Nesbo would have to be first in line.

Interviewer- John Mullan
Redbreast published by Vintage Books and was translated by Don Bartlett.

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Guardian Book Club: Nordic Noir Author Jo Nesbo discusses his novel Redbreast

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